JP's Shortform

by JP Addison13th Aug 201961 comments
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Appreciation post for Saulius

I realized recently that the same author that made the corporate commitments post and the misleading cost effectiveness post also made all three of these excellent posts on neglected animal welfare concerns that I remembered reading.

Fish used as live bait by recreational fishermen

Rodents farmed for pet snake food

35-150 billion fish are raised in captivity to be released into the wild every year

For the first he got this notable comment from OpenPhil's Lewis Bollard. Honorable mention includes this post which I also remembered, doing good epistemic work fact-checking a commonly cited comparison.

Also, I feel that as the author, I get more credit than is due, it’s more of a team effort. Other staff members of Rethink Charity review my posts, help me to select topics, and make sure that I have to worry about nothing else but writing. And in some cases posts get a lot of input from other people. E.g., Kieran Greig was the one who pointed out the problem of fish stocking to me and then he gave extensive feedback on the post. My CEE of corporate campaigns benefited tremendously from talking with many experts on the subject who generously shared their knowledge and ideas.

Thanks JP! I feel I should point out that it's now basically my full time job to write for the EA forum, which is why there are quite many posts by me :)

Offer of help with hands-free input

If you're experiencing wrist pain, you might want to take a break from typing. But the prospect of not been able to interact with the world might be holding you back. I want to help you try voice input. It's been helpful for me to go from being scared about my career and impact to being confident that I can still be productive without my hands. (In fact this post is brought to you by nothing but my voice.) Right now I think you're the best fit if you:

  • Have ever written code, even a small amount, or otherwise feel comfortable editing a config file
  • Are willing to give it a few days
  • Have a quiet room where you can talk to your computer

Make sure you have a professional microphone — order this mic if not, which should arrive the next day.

Then you can book a call with me. Make sure your mic will arrive by the time the call is scheduled.

hey!  What's a programme that you're using?

[+][comment deleted]1y 1

The new Forum turns 1 year old today.

🎵Happy Birthday to us 🎶

How hard should one work?

Some thoughts on optimal allocation for people who are selfless but nevertheless human.

Baseline: 40 hours a week.

Tiny brain: Work more get more done.

Normal brain: Working more doesn’t really make you more productive, focus on working less to avoid burnout.

Bigger brain: Burnout’s not really caused by overwork, furthermore when you work more you spend more time thinking about your work. You crowd out other distractions that take away your limited attention.

Galaxy brain: Most EA work is creative work that benefits from:

  • Real obsession, which means you can’t force yourself to do it.
  • Fresh perspective, which can turn thinking about something all the time into a liability.
  • Excellent prioritization and execution on the most important parts. If you try to do either of those while tired, you can really fuck it up and lose most of the value.

Here are some other considerations that I think are important:

  • If you work hard you contribute to a culture of working hard, which could be helpful for attracting the most impactful people, who are more likely than average in my experience to be hardworking.
  • Many people will have individual-specific reasons not to work hard. Some people have mental health issues that empirically seem to get worse if they work too hard, or they would get migraines or similar. Others will just find that they know themselves well enough to know when they should call it quits, for reasons captured elsewhere in this doc or not. This makes me usually very reluctant to call someone else out for not working hard enough.

A word on selflessness — I’m analyzing this from the perspective of someone trying to be purely selfless. I think it’s a useful frame. But I also think most people should make the decision about how much they work from the perspective of someone with the actual goals they have. It is a whole nother much more complicated blog post to flesh that out.

Finally, I want to say that although this post makes it seem like I’m coming down on the side of working less hard, I do overall think the question is complicated, and I definitely don’t know what the right answer is. This is mostly me writing in response to my own thinking, and to a conversation I recently had with my friend. My feeling from reading the discussions the Forum’s had about it, the conversation rarely gets past the normal brain take, plausibly because it seems like a bad look to argue the case for working harder. If I were writing to try to shift the state of public discussion, I would probably argue the bigger brain take more. But this is shortform, so it’s written for me.

Thanks for writing this up – I'm really interested in answers to this and have signed up for notifications to comments on this post because I want to see what others say.

I find it hard to talk about "working harder" in the abstract, but if I think of interventions that would make the average EA work more hours I think of things like: surrounding themselves by people who work hard, customizing light sources to keep their energy going throughout the day, removing distractions from their environment, exercising and regulating sleep well, etc. I would guess that these interventions would make the average EA more productive, not less.

(nb: there are also "hard work" interventions that seem more dubious to me, e.g. "feel bad about yourself for not having worked enough" or "abuse stimulants".)

One specific point: I'm not sure I agree regarding the benefits of "fresh perspective". It can sometimes happen that I come back from vacation and realize a clever solution that I missed, but usually me having lost context on a project makes my performance worse, not better.

Maybe you’re suspicious of this claim, but if I think if you convinced me that JP working more hours was good on the margin, I could do some things to make it happen. Like have one saturday a month be a workday, say. That wouldn’t involve doing broadly useful life-improvements.

On “fresh perspective”, I‘m not actually that confident in the claim and don’t really want to defend it. I agree I usually take a while after a long vacation to get context back, which especially matters in programming. But I think (?) some of my best product ideas come after being away for a while.

Also you could imagine that the real benefit of being away for a while is not that you’re not thinking about work, but rather that you might’ve met different people and had different experiences, which might give you a different perspective. 

I see. My model is something like: working uses up some mental resource, and that resource being diminished presents as "it's hard for you to work more hours without some sort of lifestyle change." If you can work more hours without a lifestyle change, that seems to me like evidence your mental resources aren't diminished, and therefore I would predict you to be more productive if you worked more hours.

As you say, the most productive form of work might not be programming, but instead talking to random users etc.

For the sake of argument, I'm suspicious of some of the galaxy takes.

Excellent prioritization and execution on the most important parts. If you try to do either of those while tired, you can really fuck it up and lose most of the value

I think relatively few people advocate working to the point of sacrificing sleep, prominent hard-work-advocate (& kinda jerk) rabois strongly pushes for sleeping enough & getting enough exercise.
Beyond that, it's not obvious working less hard results in better prioritization or execution.  A naive look at the intellectual world might suggest the opposite afaict, but selection effects make this hard.  I think having spent more time trying hard to prioritize, or trying to learn about how to do prioritization/execution well is more likely to work.  I'd count "reading/training up on how to do good prioritization" as work

Fresh perspective, which can turn thinking about something all the time into a liability

Agree re: the value of fresh perspective, but idk if the evidence actually supports that working less hard results in fresh perspective.  It's entirely plausibly to me that what is actually needed is explicit time to take a step back - e.g. Richard Hamming Fridays - to reorient your perspective.  (Also, imo good sleep + exercise functions as a better "fresh perspective" that most daily versions of "working less hard", like chilling at home)
TBH, I wonder if working on very different projects to reset your assumptions about the previous one or reading books/histories of other important project/etc works better is a better way of gaining fresh perspective, because it's actually forcing you into a different frame of mind.  I'd also distinguish vacations from "only working 9-5", which is routine enough that idk if it'd produce particularly fresh perspective.

Real obsession, which means you can’t force yourself to do it

Real obsession definitely seems great, but absent that I still think the above points apply.  For most prominent people, I think they aren't obsessed with ~most of the work their doing (it's too widely varied), but they are obsessed with making the project happen.  E.g. Elon says he'd prefer to be an engineer, but has to do all this business stuff to make the project happen.
Also idk how real obsession develops, but it seems more likely to result from stuffing your brain full of stuff related to the project & emptying it of unrelated stuff or especially entertainment, than from relaxing.

Of course, I don't follow my own advice.  But that's mostly because I'm weak willed or selfish, not because I don't believe working more would be more optimal

This is a good response.

One thing that hasn't been mentioned here is vacation time and sabbaticals, which would presumably be very useful for a fresh perspective!

Yeah I agree that's pretty plausible.  That's what I was trying to make an allowance for with "I'd also distinguish vacations from...", but worth mentioning more explicitly.

Sorry I missed that! My bad

A few notes on organizational culture — My feeling is some organizations should work really hard, and have an all-consuming, startup-y culture. Other organizations should try a more relaxed approach, where high quality work is definitely valued, but the workspace is more like Google’s, and more tolerant of 35 hour weeks. That doesn’t mean that these other organizations aren’t going to have people working hard, just that the atmosphere doesn’t demand it, in the way the startup-y org would. The culture of these organizations can be gentler, and be a place where people can show off hobbies they’d be embarrassed about in other organizations.

These organizations (call them Type B) can attract and retain staff who for whatever reason would be worse fits at the startup-y orgs. Perhaps they’re the primary caregiver to their child or have physical or mental health issues. I know many incredibly talented people like that and I’m glad there are some organizations for them.

Posting this on shortform rather than as a comment because I feel like it's more personal musings than a contribution to the audience of the original post —

Things I'm confused about after reading Will's post, Are we living at the most influential time in history?:

What should my prior be about the likelihood of being at the hinge of history? I feel really interested in this question, but haven't even fully read the comments on the subject. TODO.

How much evidence do I have for the Yudkowsky-Bostrom framework? I'd like to get better at comparing the strength of an argument to the power of a study.

Suppose I think that this argument holds. Then it seems like I can make claims about AI occurring because I've thought about the prior that I have a lot of influence. I keep going back and forth about whether this is a valid move. I think it just is, but I assign some credence that I'd reject it if I thought more about it.

What should my estimate of the likelihood we're at the HoH if I'm 90% confident in the arguments presented in the post?

This first shortform comment on the EA Forum will be both a seed for the page and a description.

Shortform is an experimental feature brought in from LessWrong to allow posters a place to put quickly written thoughts down, with less pressure to make it to the length / quality of a full post.

Thus starts the most embarrassing post-mortem I've ever written.
The EA Forum went down for 5 minutes today. My sincere apologies to anyone who's Forum activity was interrupted.
I was first alerted by Pingdom, which I am very glad we set up. I immediately knew what was wrong. I had just hit "Stop" on the (long unused and just archived) CEA Staff Forum, which we built as a test of the technology. Except I actually hit stop on the EA Forum itself. I turned it back on and it took a long minute or two, but was soon back up.
Lessons learned:
* I've seen sites that, after pressing the big red button that says "Delete", makes you enter the name of the service / repository / etc. you want to delete. I like those, but did not think of porting it to sites without that feature. I think I should install a TAP that whenever I hit a big red button, I confirm the name of the service I am stopping.
* The speed of the fix leaned heavily on the fact that Pingdom was set up. But it doesn't catch everything. In case it doesn't catch something, I just changed it so that anyone can email me with "urgent" in the subject line and I will get notified on my phone, even if it is on silent. My email is jp at organizationwebsite.

On the incentives of climate science

Alright, the title sounds super conspiratorial, but I hope the content is just boring. Epistemic status: speculating, somewhat confident in the dynamic existing.

Climate science as published by the IPCC tends to

1) Be pretty rigorous

2) Not spend much effort on the tail risks

I have a model that they do this because of their incentives for what they're trying to accomplish.

They're in a politicized field, where the methodology is combed over and mistakes are harshly criticized. Also, they want to show enough damage from climate change to make it clear that it's a good idea to institute policies reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Thus they only need to show some significant damage, not a global catastrophic one. And they want to maintain as much rigor as possible to prevent the discovery of mistakes, and it's easier to be rigorous about things that are likely than about tail risks.

Yet I think longtermist EAs should be more interested in the tail risks. If I'm right, then the questions we're most interested in are underrepresented in the literature.

Temporary site update: I've taken down the allPosts page. It appears we have a bot hitting the page, and it's causing the site to be slow. While I investigate, I've simply taken the page down. My apologies for the inconvenience.

This is over.

We're planning Q4 goals for the Forum.

Do you use the Forum? (Probably, considering.) Do you have feelings about the Forum?

If you send me a PM, one of the CEA staffers running the Forum (myself or Aaron) will set up a call call where you can tell me all the things you think we should do.

Please fix the EA forum search engine and/or make it easier to find forum posts through Google.

On the whole, I really like the search engine. But one small bug you may want to fix is that occasionally the wrong results appear under 'Users'. For example, if you type 'Will MacAskill', the three results that show up are posts where the name 'Will MacAskill' appears in the title, rather than the user Will MacAskill.

EDIT: Mmh, this appears to happen because a trackback to Luke Muehlhauser's post, 'Will MacAskill on Normative Uncertainty', is being categorized as the name of a user. So, not a bug with the search engine as such, but still something that the EA Forum tech team may want to fix.

Oh the joys of a long legacy of weird code. I've deleted those accounts, although I'm sad to report that our search engine is not smart enough to figure out that "Will MacAskill" should return "William_MacAskill"

Is there a way to give Algolia additional information from the user's profile so that it can fuzzy search it?

We could probably add a nickname field that we set manually.

Yeah, you can add lots of additional fields. It also has like 100 options for changing the algorithm (including things like changing the importance of spelling errors in search, and its eagerness to correct them), so playing around with that might make sense.

With a configuration change, the search engine now understands that karma is important in ranking posts and comments. (It unfortunately doesn't have access to karma for users.)

This doesn't fix the example I put forward, but it does make the search function more understandable and less frustrating. Thanks!

Oh, interesting. LessWrong always had that, and I never even thought about that maybe being a configuration difference between the two sites.

Curious what the problem with the current search engine is? Agree that it's important to be able to find forum posts via Google, which is currently an EA Forum specific issue, but improvements to the search likely also affect LessWrong, so I am curious in getting more detail on that.

Posts are not listed in order of relevance. You need to know exact words from the post you're searching for in order to find it - preferably exact words from the title.

For example, if I wanted to find your post from four days ago on long term future grants and typed in "grants", your post wouldn't appear, because your post uses the word "grant" in the title instead.

For example, if I wanted to find your post from four days ago on long term future grants and typed in "grants", your post wouldn't appear, because your post uses the word "grant" in the title instead.

FYI, this was a very helpful concrete example.

On reflection your reasoning is false though - it's not because the post uses the word 'grant'. If I search 'grant' I get almost identical results, certainly the first 6 are the same. If I search 'ltf grants' I get the right thing even though neither 'ltf' or 'grants' is in the title. I also think that it's not like there aren't a lot of other posts you could be searching for with the word 'grant' - it isn't just random other posts, there are *many* posts withing ~2x karma that have that word in the title.

Still, I share a vague sense that something about search is not quite right, though I can't put my finger on it.

(Edit: This was written before Khorton edited a concrete example into their comment)

Interesting. I haven't had many issues with the search. I mostly just wanted it to have more options that I can tweak (like restricting it to a specific time period and author). If you know of any site (that isn't a major search engine provider) that has search that does better here, I would be curious to look into what technology they use (we use Algolia, which seems to be one of the most popular search providers out there, and people seem to generally be happy with it). It might also be an issue of configuration.

Speaking to the google search results – It's pretty hard to just rise up the google rankings. We've done the basic advice: the crawled page contains the post titles and keywords, made sure google finds the mobile view is satisfactory. It's likely there more we can do but it's not straightforward. Complicating matters is that during the great spampocalypse in May, we were hit with a punitive action from google, because we were polluting their ranking algorithm with spam links. You may remember a time when there were no results linking to posts at all. We fixed it, but it's possible (and I'd guess likely) that we're still getting dinged for that. Unfortunately, google gives us no way of knowing.

I'm wondering about the possibility to up-vote one's own posts and comments. I find that a bit of an odd system. My guess would be that someone up-voting their own post is a much weaker signal of quality than someone up-voting someone else's post.

Also, it feels a bit entitled/boastful to give a strong up-vote to one's own posts and comments. I'm therefore reluctant to vote on my own work.

Hence, I'd suggest that one shouldn't be able to vote on one's own posts and comments.

By default your comments are posted with a regular upvote on them posts with a strong upvote on them. The fact that it's default seems to me to lower my concern about boastfulness. Although I do think it's possible the Forum shouldn't let you change away from those defaults. When I observed someone strong-upvoting their comments on LW, I found it really crass.

As to why not change the default, I do think that you by default endorse your comments and posts. This provides useful info to people, because if you're a user with strong upvote power, your posts and comments enter more highly rated. This provides a small signal to new users about who the Forum has decided to trust. And it makes it less likely that you'll see a dispiriting "0" next to your comment. OTOH, we don't count self-votes for the purposes of calculating user karma, so maybe by consistency we shouldn't show it.

Although I do think it's possible the Forum shouldn't let you change away from those defaults.

I am in favor of these defaults and also in favor of disallowing people to change them. I know of two people on LW who have admitted to strong-upvoting their comments, and my sense is that this behavior isn't that uncommon (to give a concrete estimate: I'd guess about 10% of active users do this on a regular basis). Moreover, some of the people who may be initially disinclined to upvote themselves might start to do so if they suspect others are, both because the perception that a type of behavior is normal makes people more willing to engage in it, and because the norm to exercise restrain in using the upvote option may seem unfair when others are believed to not be abiding by it. This dynamic may eventually cause a much larger fraction of users to regularly self-upvote.

So I think these are pretty strong reasons for disallowing that option. And I don't see any strong reasons for the opposite view.

I guess there are two different issues:

1) Should comments and posts by default start out with positive karma, or should it be 0?

2) Should it be possible for the author to change the default level of karma their post/comment starts out with?

This yields at least four combinations:

a) Zero initial karma, and that's unchangeable.

b) Zero initial karma by default, but you could give up-votes (including strong up-votes) to your own posts, if you wanted to.

c) A default positive karma (which is a function of your total level of karma), which can't be changed.

d) A default positive karma, which can be increased (strong up-vote) or decreased (remove the default up-vote). (This is the system we have now.)

My comments only pertained to 2), whether you should be able to change the default level of karma - e.g. to give strong up-votes to your own own posts and comments. On that, you found it "crass" when someone did that. You also made this comment:

This provides useful info to people, because if you're a user with strong upvote power, your posts and comments enter more highly rated. This provides a small signal to new users about who the Forum has decided to trust. And it makes it less likely that you'll see a dispiriting "0" next to your comment.

This rather seems to relate to 1).

As stated, I don't think one should be able to change the default level of karma. This would rule out b) and d), and leave a) and c). I have a less strong view on how to decide between those two systems, but probably support a).

I agree with you and Pablo that I'd rather see it unchangeable. My prioritization basically hinges on how common it is. If Pablo's right and it's 10%, that seems concerning. I've asked the LW team.

Making it unchangeable also seems reasonable to me, or at least making it so that you can no longer strong-upvote your own comments.

Strong-upvoting your own posts seems reasonable to me (and is also the current default behavior)

NB: We're now done planning Q4. Suggestions are still valuable, but consider holding off on further comments for a bit, we have a final draft of a post that's about to give a lot more context. Of course, if you've got a useful comment you'd otherwise forget about, I don't mind continuing to answer.

I clicked on 'go to Permalink' for this post, because I was going to send it to a friend, but I don't think it did anything.

What I actually wanted to do was find a link to just this post (not the whole shortform) that wasn't going to change.

What happens when you do that is that now your url bar in your browser points to this post, with a fancy standalone version of the comment above the post. Unfortunately, because the post doesn't actually change, you aren't navigating to a new page and your scroll stays where it is. It's a new feature from LessWrong, I've filed a bug report with them.

I'd be interested in seeing views/ hits counters on every post and general data on traffic.

Also quadratic voting for upvotes.

Also quadratic voting for upvotes.

This is an interesting question. It would certainly prevent a bunch of bad behavior and force people to be more intentional in their voting. Here are I think the main reasons we / LW have talked about it but not implemented it:

a) Some people just read way more of the Forum than others. Should their votes have less weight because they must be spread over many comments?

b) I don't want users to have to think about conserving their voting resources. If they like something, I want them to vote something and move on. Karma is fun, but the purpose of the site is the content.

I'd be interested in seeing views/ hits counters on every post and general data on traffic.

We could a) put that data on the start of every post or b) put it under a menu option under the ... menu. I think (a) wouldn't provide enough value to balance the cost of busying the UI, which is currently very sparse and the more valuable for it. I don't expect (b) would be used much. I don't have the data to back this up (yet! I really want to be able to easily check all of these) but I guess most people don't click on those menu buttons very often.

Mandatory field 200 characters summarizing the blogpost.

Mandatory keywords box.

Better Google Docs integration.

Mandatory keywords box.

See an upcoming post for how I feel about tagging.

Better Google Docs integration

My guess is that it'll be hard to beat copy and pasting. Copy and pasting of styling works fairly well and is a pretty simple C-c,C-v. It works fairly well right now, with the main complaints (images, tables) being limitations of our current editor. I'm optimistic that a forthcoming upgrade to use CKEditor will improve the situation a lot.

It works fairly well right now, with the main complaints (images, tables) being limitations of our current editor.

Copying images from public Gdocs to the non-markdown editor works fine.

Mandatory field 200 characters summarizing the blogpost

This one's been requested a few times. My thought is that a well written post has a summary or hook in the first paragraph. Aaron is more optimistic though.

With this one and the keywords box, I'd tend heavily towards leaving it optional but encouraged. I want to keep posting easy, and lean towards trusting the authors to know what will work with their post.

I want to write a post saying why Aaron and I* think the Forum is valuable, which technical features currently enable it to produce that value, and what other features I’m planning on building to achieve that value. However, I've wanted to write that post for a long time and the muse of public transparency and openness (you remember that one, right?) hasn't visited.

Here's a more mundane but still informative post, about how we relate to the codebase we forked off of. I promise the space metaphor is necessary. I don't know whether to apologize for it or hype it.


You can think of the LessWrong codebase as a planet-sized spaceship. They're traveling through the galaxy of forum-space, and we're a smaller spacecraft following along. We spend some energy following them, but benefit from their gravitational pull.

(The real-world correlate of their gravity pulling us along is that they make features which we benefit from.)

We have less developer-power than they do (1 dev vs 2.5-3.5, depending on how you count.) So they can move faster than we can, and generally go in directions we want to go. We can go further away from the LW planet-ship (by writing our own features), but this causes their gravitational pull to be weaker and we have to spend more fuel to keep up with them (more time adapting their changes for our codebase).

I view the best strategy as making features that LW also wants (moving both ships in directions I want), and then, when necessary, making changes that only I want.


One implication of this is that feature requests are more likely to be implemented, and implemented quickly, if they are compelling to both the EA Forum and LessWrong. These features keep the spaceships close together, helping them burn less fuel in the process.**

*(and Max and Ben)

** I was going to write something about how this could be a promising climate-change reduction strategy, until I remembered that carbon emissions don’t matter in outer space.

Tip: if you want a way to view Will's AMA answers despite the long thread, you can see all his comments on his user profile.

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